Growing up in Sydney in the 1960’s I wasn’t aware of an “Aboriginal problem.” It wasn’t until the late 1980’s, when I began to travel in Australia and stay in homes, that I heard stories of Australia’s history. We often stayed in the beautiful Deniliquin, in Ruth’s parent’s house near the Edward River. This is prime land and the Aboriginals used to live along this river. But it was confiscated for farming district, and the locals were moved off the land into reservations. I would think about how these people would feel. The men, who formerly hunted, now sat down and received handouts. How this would crush the esteem of the community. Most were not educated above a basic level, so they wouldn’t take higher jobs.
A history of that area shows how large parcels of land were given out to the elite from Britain, and then sold off for large farming stations. It sounds like reading the Old Testament, when Assyria took over districts and moved out local populations to rezone the land. The problem with criticising this is that is far too easy. Former generations did so much for us, they sacrificed so much, and many served the outcasts and our society with dedication uncommon in our time. They built a good country to live in. Christians often paid a heavy price in standing with the marginalised. When we criticise others, we normally find we are criticising people better than ourselves. It’s a way of covering our own blind spots.
Many locals who resisted this treatment were murdered. The whole way in which this was done was so un-Christian. Pastor Denis Atkinson of Cummeragunja said that we can’t have reconciliation today when we never had conciliation at any point in our history. We never had a relationship of honouring the other that we can go back to. The new world was simply imposed. Aboriginals weren’t acknowledged as citizens of their own country until 1967. “Christianity” has a mixed reputation in this. Many “Christians” in established circles have ignored the Aboriginal plight, and still do. Yet others served the Aboriginals, learning from them, and worked with them for recognition in the nation. And the gospel swept through the Aboriginal populations.
Pastor Denis’s grandfather and father were born in Cummeragunja, which was established by the Australian government in 1881. Cummeragunja was also the home of the first knighted Aboriginal, Pastor (Sir) Doug Nichols (a personal mentor of Denis) and Margaret Tucker, who were both instrumental as Christians in early Aboriginal activism. Denis knows the history well and pastored for 35 years. He said the gospel swept through those districts like a fire, “knowing the genuine love and care of Jesus was the one good thing we experienced.”
Denis said, “There were one or two of them who came from Britain that had the gospel, who had a heart for the people, and now I have eternal life, which we didn’t have before. But apart from that, there never was conciliation between the people, so how can you have re-conciliation? How wonderful Australia could have been with conciliation from the beginning.” This was taken from a podcast done by the Centre For Public Christianity, a very informative interview with Denis and his wife Maureen. The government has been cutting back its funding of care for the elderly and others in these Aboriginal regions in recent years, supporting instead bigger business. It has continued the saga and marginalised and spoiled communities are often hung out to dry.
The reality of our history puts paid to the idea that everyone has equal opportunity. Denis tried to keep his dignity as a man made in God’s image, in what he called, “A white man’s world.” He taught his people to live a responsible life, but the systems of injustice in place within Australia for many years have done wrong to so many people. It shows us what true Christianity is. It isn’t only living a personal moral and responsible life (which it is), but it is also recognising the suffering of others and standing with those the society rejects. This is what the cross teaches us. Jesus was rejected. This teaches us to love those who are rejected and to work to change that injustice in their lives. If not, we are denying the cross.
It seems to me that this relationship between Aboriginals and the colonialists happened due to the empire realties of the world. The invading and settling force from Europe had to take advantage of the land and its resources for the sake of the dominion of the British Empire in the world. If it didn’t, then others, like France, or the then rising power of Russia would have gained advantage on the global stage. This can be rationalised because of the “Christianity” of the Empire. “We are the more benevolent power. If others get the upper hand, they will deal with humanity in a much worse way.” I think this is still a powerful rationalisation for us today.
In one way of looking at things, it is unlikely much is going to change. There are very serious economic tussles going on, between the Western and former Soviet alliances, and especially between Western and Chinese interests for economic supremacy. This “reality” will not likely give way to the interests of the poor and marginalised in our nations. The interests of our economic powers must take precedence. Millions of people in the Middle East, for example, are already collateral damage today in these global tussles for regional control.
Jesus came into a similar world and he was a witness to a different kind of kingdom, a heavenly one. This means the kingdom runs on a different rational. In this rational, we take up our cross, instead of expecting others to become the collateral damage. We are to pave the way in reconciling communities, showing the logic of restoring relationships instead of “Roman power.” This was a very large part of what Paul meant when he said he wasn’t ashamed of the cross of Christ, which was a reference to a slave dying in weakness, at the hands of Roman power, which then had the world’s respect. It’s difficult to be a follower of Christ unless we see and embrace this new way of life.
It’s not the aim here to recommend exact solutions when it comes to legal aspects of reconciliation/ conciliation in Australia. Definitely it demands a change of heart with concrete changes in our way of honouring and including others. We obviously have a concern to share the gospel with others, but this can’t be done unless we first meet them on the grounds of common justice and love. Without living according to the general revelation of God’s goodness, which the world knows, we can hardly speak of God’s special saving revelation in Christ.
And we don’t want to be caught up in left wing/ right wing debates about issues that are specifically taught by Christ. He taught us to love our neighbour and treat them as we would like them to treat us if we were in their place. This alone is enough to guide our ethics if we are honest about it.